Administration Begins to Fulfill Promise to Shorten Certain Drug Sentences

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have begun to make good on their promise to reform criminal justice sentencing reform and encourage sensible drug policies.

A first step toward sentencing reform began with Holder’s March 13, 2014 announcement of a new policy intended to shorten sentences for certain federal drug offenders. Just weeks later on April 20 Holder announced plans to remedy the inordinately long sentences given to non-violent drug offenders.

The clemency policy focuses on offenders who were sentenced before passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which lessened the disparities in sentences for convictions associated with “crack” or rock cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine. This change will allow for commutation of sentences through presidential clemency.

“The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety,” Holder said. “The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.”

Federal prison inmates will be able to apply for reduced or suspended sentences by submitting a request to the Department of Justice (DOJ). After initial reviews by DOJ, the names of inmates recommended for clemency will be forwarded to the President for final approvals. The six criteria for clemency recommendations include those who:

  • Are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense or offenses today.
  • Are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels.
  • Have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence.
  • Do not have a significant criminal history.
  • Have demonstrated good conduct in prison.
  • Have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment,

This change of policy further affirms the president’s  determination to deal with the many inequities in the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

It is heartening that the administration and some key Democratic and Republican members of Congress have recognized that ending sentencing disparities that mostly impact African Americans and Hispanics, will strengthen the criminal justice system and bring a level of fairness to the criminal justice process.

For more information about criminal justice and juvenile justice reforms and what the National Association of Social Workers is doing about these issues, please contact Mel Wilson, manager of NASW’s Department of Social Justice and Human Rights, at .


  1. Eleanor,

    Thank you for the information you posted. Several loved ones have recently been (or are recently in the process of being) released from federal prison. Their stories corroborate your report. SO sad!

    Does NASW have a contact with the Dept. of Justice? What steps may the association take to identify Social Work experts who can lead us to improve the prison system to help prisoners function better after release?

  2. Although this is a step in the right direction, the guidelines are too stringent. 10 years is a long time, and may lead to an institutional mentality and dependency. Sentences beyond 3 years are counterproductive, in that it sets up an institutional dependency, and does not provide the rehabilitation and reeducation or appropriate models or positive life view. Our prisons do not provide rehabilitation or education, and it is simply a time and a life wasted. As much as I appreciate the aim of this reform, we need to do better.

  3. This is very good news. I don’t know much about the federal prison system, but it is my hope they will engage in education and emotional support as these prisoners are re-integrated into their communities after 10+ year sentences.

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